12 April 2023



I bought a drum kit the year before last.  I’ve always wanted one, and never took the plunge.  I should specify that this isn’t a full acoustic set, but an amplified electric, which takes up less space, and can be played through headsets, so you’re the only one who hears it, and you don’t drive everybody else nuts. 

I got strong-armed into taking up clarinet, for band, when I was thirteen or thereabouts, and mercifully got shut of it when I shipped off for boarding school a couple of years later – the clarinet didn’t follow.
  That’s when I started listening to jazz, too, and fell for the more muscular woodwinds, alto and tenor sax, Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane and Stan Getz.  Keyboard guys, McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans on piano, Jimmy Smith on the organ.  And always, the percussive, insistent drive of the drummers.

Joe Morello, behind the Brubeck quarter.  Sly, syncopated, disciplined.  Elvin Jones, the power behind Coltrane and his quartet, savage and propulsive, predatory, leaning into it, ever on the attack.  Bobby Moses, loose-limbed and mischievous, often in counterpoint or reflection, his drum fills an echo and a riff off Gary Burton’s blur of mallet strokes on vibes – and aren’t vibes themselves considered a percussion instrument?

The word timpani derives from the Greek, to hit, and drums are hit with sticks, mallets, brushes, or bare hands.  There’s something clearly elemental about drums, every culture has them, and they’re clearly physical, badda-boom.

They make noise.  They’re fun

Not too long ago, I got turned on to a drum documentary, Count Me In (in fact, it’s what inspired me to finally buy myself my own drum set).  It’s hugely entertaining, if only for the enthusiasm and high spirits of everybody involved in making it, but it interleaves a lot of archival footage, so you get Joe Morello and Elvin Jones, along with Art Blakey, Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, and Max Roach – and then you get Ringo Starr and Ginger Baker and Charlie Watts and Keith Moon and John Bonham, among others, for show and tell about influences and so forth.  It’s mesmerizing.  There’s a terrific moment with Emily Dolan Davies where she talks about how physically cathartic it is, how liberating, to just smash the skins.  And there you have it.  It’s the animal, atavistic energy.  Yes, there’s a Zen to it.  Yes, technique comes with practice, just like anything.  But the BAM BAM BAM.  It’s primal, and boy, is it satisfying!

I don’t take a break from my desk and sit down at the drums to be contemplative, in other words.  I don’t use it to work out my aggressions, either.  I do it to get lost, in rhythm, in patterns, in sound.  I like the tom-toms better than the snare, for one thing, and you can change the sound mix, and customize your kit, marimbas and cowbells.  I’ll never have the frontal attack of Elvin Jones, or the crisp delivery of Joe Morello, or for sheer exuberance, Jeff Porcaro’s half-time shuffle on Rosanna, but I play along.  And in truth, it can be relaxing or strenuous, depending on whether you’re at the top of your lungs, in your headsets.

Count Me In is available on Netflix

Dave Brubeck Quartet, live, Take Five

     (Joe Morello)


Coltrane, My Favorite Things

     (Elvin Jones)


Toto, Rosanna

     (Jeff Porcaro)



  1. I know how you feel, David. There's a strong connection between writing and music, and I wonder how many other writers also play an instrument, or even several instruments.

    American prose relies heavily on rhythm. I suspect my own prose rhythms stem from listening to my parents' gigantic collection of swing and jazz music when I was growing up, along with having very good readers (teachers, actors, journalists) in my family read aloud to me from the time I could sit on someone's lap.

    I wanted to play piano because I heard my uncle play, but my aunt, who had a piano, died when I was ten. My parents "let" me have a year of violin, instead. I hated it.

    During the British invasion, I started playing guitar, and I still do, badly. My technique is a catalog of self-taught bad habits. But I still loved piano, especially old blues and ragtime, like Albert Ammons, Otis Spann, Leroy Carr. Or the jazz masters (I guess we have that in common) like Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck.

    I finally found a used keyboard at a huge discount a few years ago and recently found a set of lessons on DVD that actually work for me. I'll never be even adequate, but the feeling of sitting at that keyboard is great.

    Anyone else out there play? Remember the Rock Bottom Remainders?

  2. An absolutely FANTASTIC album is "Diga" by Diga Rhythm Band, a percussion-based music ensemble led by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and by Zakir Hussain. It got remastered and reissued on CD, or I'm sure you could stream it.

    1. I used to listen to Shakti, John McLaughlin's group with Indian musicians using Asian rhythms, which get more complex than most Western music. Fascinating. I forgot that I actually took a course in rhythm in grad school, years before I became a serious writer. Everything you hear is an influence.

  3. Steve, I have a couple of Shakti CDs. I love them.

  4. David: two words- Tony Williams!

    And on top of that, I went and saw Simon Phillips on his latest Protocol tour this winter. Bad. ASS.

    1. Brian Thornton12 April, 2023 14:20

      The above “Anonymous” comment was from me, btw.

  5. Good for you! Never a better time.

    One of my many favorites is the wonderful Viola Smith. I always thought those were kettle drums mounted high behind her shoulders, but Wikipedia claims they're tunable tom-toms.

    David, I just came upon an interesting little mystery. My aunt was best friends with the first wife of Buddy Rich, Betty Brown. Wikipedia presents only Marie Allison, but WikiTree mentions that a marriage to Buddy Rich has no source. The former Texas beauty queen died young at the age of 43, so it's not possible to ask her!

    Anyway, congratulations on the drums. Enjoy!


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